Cherries, whisky, and the Wall Street of the North

I headed north on Rte 5 down to the coast and the little apple town of Niki (1920 population 5,476, 1980 population 5,467, estimated 2009 population 3,874, projected 2035 population 2,573), which in recent years has diversified into other fruits such as grapes and cherries, which were in season as I passed through. Niki was not going to let anyone forget that it was all about fruit: cherries were everywhere, even decorating the side of a well spruced block of public housing.

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In the rusting station, half of which had been given over to the storage of agricultural implements, a poster advertised the upcoming cherry festival.

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What do you do at a cherry festival? At this one, events were to be kicked off with a taiko drum performance, and among the attractions there was a fruit juice drinking contest, free fruit flavored cotton candy for the first 300, bingo (with prizes for everyone), and even “jazz street dance and hip-hop”, but the marquee attraction was clearly the cherry stone spitting contest, with prizes of Y30,000 for the adults and Y5,000 for the children. Who said there was nothing to do in the countryside?

Rte 5 was lined with dozens of near identical fruit stalls. I stopped at one and bought a plastic punnet of cherries for Y500.

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I had hoped this would net me in return a picture of the old woman running the stall, but women of a certain age are loath to be photographed.

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She did however invite me to go around to the orchard at the back of the building and eat the cherries straight from the trees, and very good they were too.

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I sensed though that Niki, like much of Hokkaido, was a triumph of willpower—and latterly pesticides—over nature, and the potted history of the town on its website suggests as much: the fruit harvest was battered by a typhoon in September 2004 and many fruit trees buckled under heavy snow, not a rare event in this part of the world, in January 2005 and again in January 2006. The cherry superpowers, as measured by annual crop volumes, are Turkey, the US, Iran, and Italy, none of which is noted for being largely buried in snow for half the year, as Hokkaido is. Was this subsidized agricultural mercantilism taken to the nth degree, I wondered. Is the drainage of people off the land of rural Hokkaido in part a tacit recognition of the unsustainability of such practices?

Picking off cherries from punnet on the passenger seat, I soon crossed into Yoichi (1920 population 16,809, 1980 population 26,632, estimated 2009 population 21,702, projected 2035 population 14,893), the spiritual home of Nikka Whisky and indeed whisky in Japan.

The very idea of Japanese whisky invites scoffery among some; why, you might as well be drinking Belarusian cognac or Ukrainian port, and it is true there is something unfashionably dogged about the Japanese determination to recreate western wines and spirits on eastern shores and mountains. More than dogged even, something quixotic perhaps, almost desperate, driven by subterranean urges of perceived inferiority, and yet with something game, ambitious, and healthily iconoclastic thrown in.

My long quiescent interest in Japanese whisky was piqued by stumbling across a Bloomberg article that revealed that the 2008 World Whisky Awards’ two most prestigious prizes had both gone to Japan: Suntory’s Hibiki 30 won the best blended whisky award and Nikka’s Yoichi 1987 20-year old malt the best single malt whisky award. Why should this not be a “Judgment of Paris” moment, a third of a century later, for the world of whisky? If New World wines can cut it at the highest level and change the world’s drinking habits, why not Japanese whisky?

There are any number of mostly miserable answers to that question; foremost among them to my mind is that Japan will never in the foreseeable future be the sort of lifestyle superpower that in the broadest sense would give the backing to the brand. In the consumption troposphere that premium alcohol inhabits, below the stratosphere of watches and cars, antiques and art, which in turn lies below the mesosphere of noctilucent land, there has to be an easily conjured image—cliché if you like—that validates the purchase: with Old World wines and spirits, it might be the leisure of an arbor-shrouded long weekend lunch in the shadow of a handsome villa, with rum it might be the thud of calypso and reggae off the eaves of a thatched bar on the beach of a Caribbean hideaway, with Australian lager it might be the laid-back mateship of the Outback updated to a suburban garden barbecue setting, and with Japanese beer, it could just about be the steely but chic-cut urban gray of a can of Asahi coupled with the brazen pertness (and smug superiority) of the assault on the Western dietary order that sushi represents. But you can’t really make whisky urban, and the urban, the hyper-urban, and a good dose of urbanity, is what post-war Japan has had to offer the world—or at least, what the world has been interested in taking, when it has been interested at all.

The intricacies of global branding would have been in the minds of precisely no one in 1894, however, when Nikka’s founder Masataka Taketsuru was born the third son of a sake brewer in Hiroshima Prefecture. The two elder brothers went their own ways and it was left to Masataka to study brewing at what is now Osaka University, where he developed an interest in Western alcohol. Joining a brewer of Western spirits after graduation, the president suggested he go and study the way of Scotch, which is how he ended up in the summer of 1919 in the applied chemistry department at Glasgow University, abetted in his quest for whisky perfection, so the Nikka mythologizing goes, by a nose broken at the age of seven and made supernaturally receptive to aromas, and then in the tiny Speyside village of Rothes, which is where or whereabouts he met the daughter of a Kirkintilloch doctor, Jessie Roberta (“Rita”) Cowan, who he married in 1920, against the wishes of both sets of parents, in a registry office ceremony attended only by Rita’s younger sister and two of her childhood friends. He returned to Japan with Rita in tow in 1921 and spent much of the following decade at a brewer called Kotobukiya, which finally shipped its first real whisky in 1929.

In 1934, free at last from a decade-long contact with Kotobukiya, Masataka and Rita departed for Yoichi, selected for its perceived similarity with Scotland in the harshness of its climate, the clarity of its waters, the abundance of peat, and its mist-shrouded mornings. The distillery was completed the same year but the whisky needed years to mature and Masataka turned his hand to apple juice before the first whisky left the barrel in 1940.

Yoichi is still a working distillery but it has also turned itself into a well executed tourist attraction: the museum, on which a lot of money has been lavished, was seductively lit, informative, and engaging, and midway around the exhibits, should the visitor need refreshment, there’s a very civilized bar with a vast selection of whiskies from around the world.

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The museum makes great play of the romance between Masataka and Rita, referring to her more than once as Masataka’s “shogai no hanryo” (lifelong companion), although he was to outlive her by almost two decades. The foregrounding of Rita in a way serves as the ultimate imprimatur of Scottish authenticity on the whisky that Masataka created, and it’s not hard to be touched by a twinge of sadness at her tale: after arriving in Yoichi in 1934, she was never to return to Scotland and was kept under very watchful supervision by the kempeitai military police in the Second World War, which the museum, to its credit, does not gloss over. Nearly 50 by the time the war was over, Rita and Masataka never had children, although they did in very Japanese fashion adopt a nephew of Masataka, Takeshi. She died relatively young, aged 64, in 1961, just as Japan’s high-growth era, which Nikka was by now in a perfect position to ride, was getting into full swing. In his later years, it seems, Masataka became a typical mid-century Hemingwayesque plutocratic man of action, shooting bears from helicopters for sport and dying aged 85 in 1979, at the very apex of Japan’s post-war love affair with whisky.

In 1989, Nikka bought the Ben Nevis distillery in Fort William in what looks suspiciously like a Bubble-inspired purchase of trophy real estate along the lines of Pebble Beach in California and the Rockefeller Center in New York; an article in the Scotsman I tracked down on-line has a Ben Nevis representative describing Yoichi as “hilarious, like a wee bit of Scotland on the other side of the world”.

Certainly the red-roofed malt drying kilns, stills, and warehouses in the distillery complex have an authentically dour Presbyterian heft to them. This is the No. 1 drying tower.

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Nothing outside the distillery in the rest of Yoichi struck me as either particularly hilarious or as being like a wee bit of Scotland, however. The front gate of the distillery stands opposite an abandoned pachinko parlor—the first but by no means the last time that those three words appear in conjunction before this tale is done.

Before we leave the distillery though, it’s worth reflecting momentarily on the meteoric rise and precipitous fall in the popularity of whisky in post-war Japan. Nikka, with around a fifth of the market, has historically played second fiddle to the mighty Suntory, which has around two-thirds, and it was Suntory that devised a hierarchy of brands and attendant marketing strategies for them that were perfectly attuned to the hierarchy of the corporation and the ranks of the salarymen that were the prime consumers. New company recruits started out drinking Suntory Red in the “Tory’s Bar” whisky bars that sprung up in the big cities in the 1960s and 1970s (bafflingly pronounced “trisbaa”) and as they were promoted, convention allowed them to move on to pricier brands such as Kakubin (“square bottle”) and, above all, Old, which led to the oft repeated and no doubt lost in translation salaryman joke, “one day you’ll be Old”…

Whisky consumption peaked around 1980, at around 350,000 kiloliters, which works out very approximately to an impressive three liters for every man, woman, and child in Japan. Tastes change, however, and whisky was already fast falling out of favor in the 1980s, before the collapse of the Bubble squeezed entertainment budgets and gave added impetus to the decline. Consumption has plummeted to around 100,000 kiloliters in recent years and there seems to be no easy way to arrest the decline. Suntory’s strategy seems to be to sell twentysomethings and thirtysomethings on single malts, with their whisky as wine tales of terroir and water and weather, and to woo young women with chocolate and single malt seminars ahead of Valentine’s Day, and the brewer claims success in boosting sales of its Yamazaki single malt. Which is all very well, but where does it leave the mass market for blended whiskies? And can the featherbedded elites of Tokyo and other metropolises really serve as a bridgehead to reach the less cocooned youth of the rest of the country, where the Y4,000 cost of a bottle of Yamazaki 10-year old could easily represent half a day’s pay? In a country where lager made from corn, pea protein, soy protein, or soy peptides, rather than malt, has recently been all the rage because tax anomalies cause it to currently cost around Y197 ($2.02) a 350ml can in a local convenience store, versus Y222 ($2.28) for a low-malt lager and Y284 ($2.91) for the real full-malt thing, it seems unlikely.

There appeared from the map to be three other tourist sites in Yoichi, the first of which, Yoichi Uchu Kinenkan (Yoichi Space Museum) I sped past, barely noticing that it was closed (well, it was a Monday, after all, the day facilities of this sort often close) and barely bothering to ponder why it was there at all, but in retrospect it makes for a sad little tale worth the telling, not least for exemplifying Hokkaido’s tourist woes.

The museum was built to commemorate Yoichi boy made good Mamoru Mori, who flew on the space shuttle Endeavor in 1992 and again in 2000 and who was Japan’s first astronaut in space, although beaten to the punch of being Japan’s first person in space by a TV reporter who hitched a ride on Soyuz in 1990. This was something, then, worth taking local pride in; knowing Japan, Yoichi could have been celebrating space travel in earth-bound concrete and glass for any manner of improbable reasons—space could have been the all-consuming passion of the eldest daughter of the most powerful local construction company and I wouldn’t have been in the least surprised.

The museum opened in 1998 at the cost of Y2.7bn ($28mn at the current exchange rate) and was a “daisan” (third) sector project. Daisan sector projects have come in Japan to mean joint ventures between municipalities and private enterprises, and they have built a fearsome reputation for the rosy unreality of their demand forecasts and the staggering losses they accumulate as their forecasts turn to space dust. It would take a lot of sleuthing to discover precisely how much of the $28mn cost of construction was borne directly by the residents of Yoichi, which would be around $2,000 for every taxpayer, but we do know that the town contributed 75% of the $900,000 or so in capital with which the company that ran the museum was established.

The centerpiece of the museum was a chamber that simulated zero gravity, which could have been a lot of fun, and in its opening year it attracted 150,000 people. The novelty wore off, though, and by FY3/08 visitor numbers were down to around 45,000, less than a third of the peak, with museum-goers in the long winter months particularly thin on the ground, and cumulative operating losses up to around $750,000. The company behind the museum filed for insolvency in December last year and the four remaining employees were made redundant at the end of the month. What, I wonder, does Japan’s first astronaut think about it all?

Yoichi’s two other obvious attractions were both buildings related to the herring fishing industry that flourished up the western seaboard of Hokkaido until the 1950s, a subject we’ll revisit later.

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Content with my souvenir of a bottle of 10-year old Yoichi single malt, the 20-year old having been priced out of reach by its recent prizes, I headed out of Yoichi, still on Rte 5, bound for Otaru.

Otaru: Every dog has its day

It is a time when no new voices are raised, and people find no one capable of becoming law. And thus, it is a time shaped by the totality of social conventions, both of class and convention. A time when new voices have already ceased in society, when people dwell stubbornly on the past and present, and new futures are neglected. A time when conservation and attachment and the aged are as prevalent as owls in the night. When all of life conspires to suppress new dreams and actions. In an age when the best of our natural human inclinations have fallen into such a state of suspended animation, when movement has been quelled at ever deeper levels, people refer to this state as “society” and say that we have arrived at a cultural plane. The steely view of a certain historian that “Civilization is conservatism” is a scathing condemnation of our so-called culture, sparing basically nothing.

Takuboku Ishikawa, First Sight of Otaru (1907)

I hadn’t been meaning to go to Otaru (1916 population 102,106, mid-1960s population over 200,000, 1980 population 180,728, estimated 2009 population 135,500, projected 2035 population 83,945). Among the long-term Anglosphere community in Japan, Otaru is famous—notorious—for one thing and one thing only: the interminable Otaru onsen lawsuit, in which US-born but naturalized Japanese citizen Debito Arudou and others sued an Otaru “onsen” (hot springs resort) for essentially excluding foreigners due to alleged trouble caused by drunk Russian sailors. As you can see from the links, the plaintiffs won in the Sapporo District Court but to absolutely no-one’s surprise, except perhaps the plaintiffs, the district court ruling was overturned in the Sapporo High Court and the Supreme Court denied review.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the case, a subject to which we will return (much) later, the lawsuit cannot have done Otaru’s reputation as a tourist town with Japan’s Westerner minority much good, although we are so few in number, so dismissive of Japan’s provinces and their meager charms, so keen to get to Narita to get home to loved ones or to the sinuous smiling embrace of Southeast Asia, and in many cases so paltry in pay, that the whole of Otaru could erect forty-foot banners saying “Honkies not Wanted” on every main road on its outskirts and it would not have any perceptible affect on the town’s tourist take.

Two discoveries shortly before departure convinced me to include Otaru on the itinerary. The first was that Otaru’s population is declining faster than any other city its size in the whole of Japan, which takes a certain amount of doing. Otaru ranks 175th out of Japan’s 783 cities by population and registered a population decline of 4.69% between 2005 and March 2009, more than a percentage point annually, ranking it #1 by population loss out of the largest 250 cities. Unusually, Otaru’s demographic profile combines the most population-negative elements of both urban and rural areas: it has the very heavy over-60 weighting typical of the countryside and the very low under-20 weighting typical of the city. Rural areas often have high birthrates despite being depleted of 20-40 year olds, while cities often have fewer elderly and very low birthrates—Tokyo’s birthrate is the lowest of any prefecture. Being quite the amateur demographer these days, I was curious to find out, if I could, what was behind Otaru’s plunging population; figures this extreme portend a tale to be told.

The second discovery was that someone, sometime, had dubbed Otaru, or at least its downtown, “the Wall Street of the North” (“kita no Wall Street”). Surely whoever it was had never been to Wall Street, I contemptuously assumed, and also had a very haphazard grasp of geography: at 43°11′north 141° 0′ east, Otaru is barely north of New York City, at 40°43′ north 74° 0′ west, but a fair way east of it. Wouldn’t “Wall Street of the East” have been more appropriate? Perhaps pre-war Shanghai and the Bund had already bagged that title by the time the moniker inventor came to make the compass choice. It might be a measure of the utter obscurity of Otaru in the Western consciousness that “Wall Street of the North” amasses a handsome 37 Google hits. At any rate, I knew I simply had to see Wall Street North.

I parked up with distressing ease in front of Otaru station and began to explore on foot. What follows is a photo-essay of sorts, perhaps more photo than essay.

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The former Otaru branch (1930) of the former Yasuda Bank was the first find. “Former” is going to appear a lot in descriptions of Otaru architecture. The justification for the “Wall Street of the North” appellation was becoming a little clearer, though; this must have been an imposing enough building for 1930 Hokkaido, and for 1930 anywhere in the world outside the major metropolises. Doric column purists would have conniptions, although the order has so long been debased that the architect’s interpretation should be judged on its own (admittedly not considerable) merits. Yasuda Bank was the mightiest in Japan at the time; reorganized after the war as part of US efforts to dismantle the zaibatsu, it became Fuji Bank, eventually enmiring itself in the swamps of Bubble lending free-for-alls before finally disappearing into the morass of Mizuho Holdings in 2000.

Tellingly the building was vacated by Fuji Bank in 1970, then occupied by a newspaper, Hokkai Keizai Shimbun (Hokkaido Economic Daily), which finally went under in 2006 and the building was turned into a Japanese restaurant, Hanagokoro (“Flower Heart”) in October 2007. As with most of Otaru’s tourist sights, men are not the target audience. I returned here for a late lunch and was the sole diner (well, it was nearly 2pm). The toilets converted from the bank’s vaults made for a noteworthy touch.

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Wandering north-west from the Yasuda Bank building into Ironai 2-chome, still downtown but a little off the beaten trail, rewarded with less assertive and more charming buildings.

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Uminekoya (literally, “House of the Black-tailed Gull”, more romantically “Sea Cat House”) is an engaging family-run Italian/international bistro that has been going for more than three decades in this three-storey 1906 warehouse, the sort of place that made me think I could make Otaru home.

Nearby Uminekoya is a typical merchant’s premises of the period, Hayakawa Shoten (1905), which sold tea, paper, and stationery. The proximity in construction dates is no coincidence: a fire swept the neighborhood in 1904 and it was completely rebuilt. Dismal, though, that the city authorities were unable or unwilling (the Otaru Journal, an astonishingly feisty and frank Internet-only local newspaper, is not quite clear on this score) to block the construction of the 40 meter eyesore of an apartment block that towers behind and was topped out as recently as 2006.

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I wonder if either of these buildings formed part of Takuboku Ichikawa’s first impressions of Otaru?

Some of the most charming buildings in the area are the least celebrated; unrefurbished, they have to make do without the dignity conferred by a purple explanatory sign put up by the city and await either a handsome prince to save them or the demolition contractor’s wrecking ball.

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How I would love to be that handsome prince, but the prospect of having to make either building pay its way in today’s Otaru is a chillingly formidable one.

I circled back toward the town center, pausing to admire the old warehouse walls.

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Central Otaru has two covered malls, one a modest affair where the street has simply been pedestrianized and roofed, the other, Sun Mall Neo, a more lavish outfit, at least at one end, the redevelopment of which cost, according to the Otaru Journal, a cool Y13bn ($136mn). Hokkaido-only department store operator Marui Imai, teetering on the precipice of bankruptcy, pulled out in 2005, The adjoining 100-room Grand Hotel struggled on until February this year before throwing in the towel, owing Y900mn ($9.4mn) in unpaid rent and utility bills alone, and the last stores surrendered in March, leaving the entire complex a “ghost building”, as the Japanese say.

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No prizes for guessing the year of construction (1990). The January 15 Otaru Journal quotes one nearby merchant’s withering reaction to news of the hotel’s closure: “Everything the city does ends up being a complete disaster. That this is going under and the former Mycal development [a huge retail complex on the outskirts of Otaru, still clinging on by its fingers under new owners] went belly-up just highlights the bankruptcy of the city’s retail policies, which attempted to kill two birds with one stone and missed both. This was all foreseeable from the start”.

One of the highlights of downtown Otaru for me was a piece of sensible planning on the part of the city authorities; the abandoned Temiya railway line, which runs right through the center of town, has been left almost entirely intact for pedestrians and dog-walkers to enjoy.

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Nothing symbolizes Otaru’s past glory more than the Temiya line, which in 1880 was the very first railroad to open in Hokkaido and only the third in all of Japan, forming part of the state-run Horonai Tetsudo linking Temiya in Otaru with Sapporo and Horonai in the coalmining district of Sorachi. The Temiya part of the line was bypassed to the south by the Hakodate main line in 1903, leaving only a stub of a branch line running less than 3km through the city, on which the axe finally fell in 1985 with the privatization of the old Japan National Railways. In many places the line backs onto old factories and godowns.

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At one point along the line a tanned and tautly muscled rickshaw puller was resting.

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The role of the rickshaw wallahs is undoubtedly to titillate the female tourists; indeed the bulk of the Otaru tourist experience, from the procession of shops hawking two of Otaru’s specialties, glassware and music boxes, to the string of sushi restaurants lining the appropriately named Sushiya Dori (“Sushi-shop Street”) seemed designed to cater to the young women of Sapporo, only half-an-hour away by train, out on a holiday jaunt, which made for some incongruous images: a fragrant candle store in a squat and grimy warehouse, little glass furin wind-chimes strung out across a dirty canal tributary, giving off a brittle titter in the breeze, the occasional tarted-up alleyway with hole-in-the-wall restaurants far more comely than usual.

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Down on Nichigin Dori (“Bank of Japan Street”) lies another cluster of bank headquarters and trading house branches that mutely testify Otaru’s zenith. First up is the former Otaru branch of the Bank of Japan (1912).

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Opposite looms the former Otaru branch of Mitsui & Co. (1937), probably the last building of any historical note to have been built and to me particularly handsome in its Thirties austerity enlivened with touches of opulence.

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Adjacent stands the former headquarters of the Hokkaido Bank (1912).

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There were enough other old banks and trading houses in the vicinity to convince me that the “Wall Street of the North” appellation, while undoubtedly exaggerated, was not worthy of complete derision.

The day was drawing on and the legs were getting weary; the question of the evening’s entertainment presented itself. Sushi was clearly one option—there are supposedly 150 sushi restaurants in Otaru, one for every 900 residents—but I was attracted to a place by the Temiya line I had discovered earlier in the afternoon, in a row of shacks so ramshackle that I couldn’t resist a couple of snaps.

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Dining bar Tsuki no Naka (“In the moonlight”) was an Italian-accented joint with one massive attraction—a solitary outside table overlooking the Temiya line. What better location could there have been to brood over the splendor of Otaru’s past, the fragility of its present, and the gathering gloom of its future?

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The restaurant was bustling and cheerful for a Monday night, with that rarest of Otaru sounds, the laughter of children, emanating from inside. I negotiated my way down a bottle of plonk and ordered rillette as a starter, which produced the only slightly discordant note of the evening. “It’s like pate, you know, kind of a meat paste”, said the proprietoress, a concerned look on her face. “Yes, I’m aware of that”. The rillette was excellent, though, as was the grilled chicken from Shiretoko in the far northeast of Hokkaido. I studied the map of the city intently, convinced that there was another Otaru to be found beneath the peruke and the powder of the tourist trade.

Eventually I wound my way back down the Temiya line to the hotel I had booked earlier. I had been turned down at two hotels before finding this one, although I would not take that as evidence of the vibrancy of the hotel industry in Otaru; at the second, the desk clerk didn’t even have the courtesy to go through the motions of consulting his screen to see if there had been any last-minute cancellations. I eventually found room at the inn at the Otaru Green Hotel. I’m sure it was just coincidence that this was the one of the trio where it was obvious to the hotel employees that I had arrived in a sports car with Tokyo number plates rather than having just walked in off the street.

The only things that were green about the Otaru Green Hotel were the clinical green background to the white lettering on the signboard, the dull industrial green of the towels in the bathroom, and the this-way-safety green of the emergency exit signs in the corridors. The nondescript room overlooked a nondescript scene and smelt vaguely of asphalt. In the cramped and tattered dining room the next morning, the two crones behind the counter could not keep up with the breakfast rush. I eased their burden by ordering only a cup of what turned out to be execrable coffee. Still, the Otaru Green Hotel was absurdly cheap (Y5,000, $53) and ultimately proved to be the cheapest accommodation of the fortnight.

The weather had been exceptionally fine and I was upper-body tanning to as much of a crisp as I could manage, until the morning of the fourth day, which dawned drizzly and misty, and it was through the drizzle that I made my way to my last Otaru appointment, with the Otamoi danchi (public housing estate), which I had pinpointed from the map the previous evening as likely to offer a different perspective on Otaru.

Hokkaido has a far higher percentage—around a third—of its inhabitants living in apartments, terraces, and tenements than its expansiveness and low population density would suggest. It also has much more public housing than I was expecting, not infrequently of the meanest imaginable sort: row upon row of tiny jerry-built terraced bungalows tumbling down hillsides or huddling in a hollow. Such was the case with the Otamoi danchi.

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There are four bungalows to each terraced strip, with the central chimney shared between the two bungalows in the middle. The photos do not capture the sheer scale of the estate, which consists of around a hundred almost identical blocks splayed across the valley. Many are boarded up and the lower reaches of the estate are beginning to be torn down and grubbed up, the result of both depopulation and progress, I would guess. The vista was one of extreme bleakness on a damp midsummer’s day; what it would be like in the middle of a ferocious Hokkaido winter I shudder to imagine. I threaded a somber way back through the city and out the other side on a mountain road to begin the next episode of the journey.

Like every dog, every village, town, and city has its day, and Otaru’s heyday was a long one, spanning more than half a century, landmarked by the opening of the Temiya line in 1880, having only been designated a village in 1865, and the attainment of city status in 1922, and capped by a confluence of factors in the 1940s and 1950s, foremost of which was its eclipse by neighboring Sapporo, which overtook Otaru to become the second largest city as early as 1925 and then outstripped Hakodate around 1940. Otaru was a victim of its own geography; hemmed in on all side save the sea by steep mountains, there was no room for it to grow and sprawl, while Sapporo occupies a plain as large in area as the whole of New York City.

Like much of the western coast of Hokkaido, Otaru was built on the herring fishery, as fishermen from the southern and longest fished ports of Matsumae and Esashi, in what should have been a cautionary tale, found their herring stocks depleted and moved north. The biggest catches in Otaru were made around the beginning of the 20th century, bringing with them considerable wealth. The herring then grew gradually scarcer, with Otaru’s last haul—1,409MT, less than a tenth of the peak, coming in 1949. The next year there were no fish at all, and they never returned, in what must be one of the world’s first cases of a fishery collapsing through overexploitation.

Otaru’s economy by then was more diversified, of course, but it was still above all a port. It’s difficult to tease out exactly what caused the port to decay: it was certainly hit hard after the end of the Second World War by the loss of Karafuto, the southern half of Sakhalin, which had been part of the empire since 1905, to the Soviets. By the outbreak of war, Karafuto had nearly half a million Japanese settlers, and almost all seaborne trade went through Otaru. The post-war loss of a more recent colonial acquisition, Manchukuo, the Japanese puppet state in Manchuria and Inner Mongolia, also hurt trade. The port itself, which depended on a system of canals and barges for the lading and unlading of ships, was dated and labor intensive, and slow to modernize. Otaru was also fundamentally disadvantaged in the post-war era by being on the Sea of Japan coast, as the Pacific-facing metropolises of Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya boomed. The port ceded ground first to Muroran, on the Pacific coast, and then to the container terminals of Tomakomai, which now handles almost half of the marine cargo entering and leaving Hokkaido; Otaru is left with a scant 5% or so, with just one container vessel a week (from China) calling.

What would Takuboku Ishikawa make of Otaru in its present state, as the population slides inexorably back to its level at the dawn of the twentieth century, a city that dwells stubbornly now on its past and the present, where new futures, perhaps of necessity, are neglected? Ishikawa (1886-1912) was, at least in the skeletal trajectory of his short life, a John Keats the best part of a century on: both were tubercular poets, Keats dead at 25, Ishikawa at 26. While Keats’ trajectory took him south to the Spanish Steps, Ishikawa went north, to the new-found land of Hokkaido; his first sight of Otaru, where his brother-in-law was the station master, came in 1904, and it was in Otaru four years later that he attended a rally held by Christian Socialist Kojiro Nishikawa and became a proto-socialist himself, leanings detectable in the First sight of Otaru essay. Like many others before him and after, he came to Hokkaido in search of frontier freedom from the old ways; like many others he was to be disappointed that the old ways were not to be so easily sloughed off and ploughed into the turf, and he left Hokkaido in the spring of 1908, never to return. A life of almost unremitting misery is perhaps best captured by the first poem in his last volume, Kanashiki Gangu (“Sad Toys”), sold for Y20 to pay medical bills and published posthumously; his son had died, three weeks old, in the autumn of 1910, his wife was diagnosed with pleurisy and tuberculosis the following summer, his mother spent the winter of 1911 vomiting blood and died a month before him, and he knew full well that his tuberculosis gave him months at most to live.

呼吸すれば、
胸の中にて鳴る音あり。
凩よりもさびしきその音!

When I breathe,
A sound moaning in my chest.
Lonelier than the cold winter wind, this sound!

A century on, Otaru is no longer Ishikawa’s town of “manly activity”; tourism has given it a distinctly feminine air. If he were to wander its streets today, he would be hard pressed to find Otaru people who “do not walk so much as charge ahead”. Indeed, in the center of town he would find fewer and fewer people walking, let alone charging ahead: the Otaru Journal reported in December 2008 that the number of pedestrians in the central shopping districts had fallen by an astonishing 40%-45% in a mere nine years. The future, I fear, holds more, much more, of the same, for there is no frontier spirit abroad in Japan that could serve as Otaru’s savior in these times “shaped by the totality of social conventions”. Yet for one June day, like Ishikawa but from wholly different sentiments, I too was “simply and inexplicably happy to have joined the community of Otaru by happenstance.”

4 responses to “Cherries, whisky, and the Wall Street of the North

  1. Living in Tokyo in the late 1980’s; I was struck by how run down much of the public housing (“danchi”) was. Multistory walkups with peeling paint, grime, and spiderwebs.

    Perhaps you might consider exploring the state of Japan’s public housing projects more.

  2. A question does Suntory still produce the suntory red of the sixties and seventies…… I lived in Japan (Sasebo) for two years and learned to drink on suntory red …… Those were the best two years of my life

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